Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Becoming a #smartwatchnerd

William Gibson's Pebble
I've been following the rise of the smart watch for a number of years; from early versions by Motorola and Sony Ericsson, through to the slightly odd, Japan-only models by NTT Docomo, watches have been becoming *smarter* since the turn of the noughties. However, we've not seen the explosion in smart watches / wearable tech that many have been predicting. In fact, it took a surprise entrant, the Pebble, to really ignite the concept of the smart watch in the minds of the watch-buying public. Today's market is probably dominated in unit terms by Pebble (even William Gibson has one), if only due to the monstrous success of its funding on Kickstarter.  Strangely, Kickstarter had also been the source of a slight false start in smart watches, when a number of Apple iPod Nano "strap" projects were funded, which had hoped to push the Nano towards becoming the first real piece of wearable tech. 

Kickstarter projects continue to fund - AGENT, for example, recently exceeded its target by a non inconsiderable margin, and appears to be the most *robust* of the smart watches produced so far, being manufactured from powder-coated aluminium. If there is to be a Sandbenders-style smart watch in the next few years, I'd say that the AGENT has the most potential: it has a rugged chassis, and *looks* as though the innards might be more swappable than, for example, the Pebble, Cookoo or I'm Watch. In addition, the AGENT is the first that (for me at least) bridges the design gap between watch and periphery.

Rather than buy a Pebble (I just didn't like the design, to be honest), the Sony SmartWatch (Android-only), or slap a Nano on a NATO-style strap, I started looking at the Frame from MetaWatch. I had briefly written about the MetaWatch in a post for the Prodigal Guide, having been intrigued by the hybrid analog-digital display. The range has since been expanded to include the MetaWatch Strata, a slightly more robust looking version of the original Frame, and the model for which I plumped. MetaWatch was purchased by group of investors back in 2011 from Fossil Watches / Sony Ericsson and is currently run by Bill Geiser and David Rosales, who previously led the Watch Technology Division at Fossil. Unlike many other smart watches, MetaWatch focuses on the App, rather than the watch, which effectively turns the smart watch into a dumb terminal on which content can be displayed. While limiting the "smartness" of the watch itself, this obviously comes with significant benefits, as long as the hardware is largely future-proof.

The first challenge when buying a MetaWatch is getting it into the UK: due to the somewhat over-zealous charges applied by the UK Post Office, you can expect to pay about £40 ($60) on top of the $179  $129 plus delivery (another $50). With the recent price drop, the shipping and taxes look even more silly, although it's hard to blame MetaWatch for this. The Strata is MetaWatch's sportier model, water-resistant to 5ATM; "double injection moulded PU, co-moulded with a tough PC poly case", the Strata looks tougher than the Frame, and when on the wrist, brings to mind the feeling of wearing a dive computer, rather than a digital (or indeed mechanical) watch. With six flush pushers (three along each side of the watch), this looks like a tool, not a fashion accessory.

Charging Clip (C) MetaWatch
The Strata ships with a standard microUSB charger and clip. No instructions (you're directed to their 'site for setup info) and no extraneous bumph. Some might call it "no frills", but I think that this paired back approach fits the MetaWatch ("MW") ethos. MW describes itself as a "platform-based wearable display for notifications, activity monitoring, and ambient light sensing", and might well be the geekiest of the smartwatches out there. The clip is possibly the most interesting element of the Strata's external design: four small, metal nubs are recessed into the caseback, allowing the clip to charge the battery. It's a clever design, providing a degree of water resistance without requiring ports to be covered (see Sony's Experia Z, for example). As a slight aside, it's interesting to note that AGENT have gone with Qi-charging, the inductive electrical power transfer method used by (for example) Nokia, rather than a clip / lead.

Charging the MetaWatch Strata
Pairing the watch with your 'phone is relatively straight forward: download an App (MetaWatch Manager, or MWM), install on your 'phone, turn on the Bluetooth and follow the instructions. Using MWM is simple and pleasant enough, allowing the user to customise up to four "faces" with up to four "widgets" that can be scrolled between using a button on the watch. These widgets are somewhat limited at the moment, but include time, weather, 'phone battery and calendar entries. The 'phone battery indicator is suprisingly useful and alerts yoi to a full charge, should your iPhone be plugged in elsewhere. Individual widgets can be slightly customised from the App, and the display can be inverted to provide a move visually arresting  experience, turning the 96x96 pixel "sunlight-readable", reflective mirror from silver to black. The display is, for me, one of the Strata's more unusual and engaging features despite some readability issues in very bright, and indeed very low light, conditions. The previous version of MWM (v1.30) included a rather fun koi carp graphic on the fullscreen clock display, and I must admit to being slightly disappointed that this was dropped in the latest update (v1.35). 

Widgets
I've been wearing the Strata on and off for four weeks now, including a solid two week period while holidaying in Scotland. The last time I wore a non-mechanical watch for that period of time was probably the late nineties, when I regularly wore a 200m Casio for diving. Unlike the Casio, the Strata required a lot of coddling, frequent re-charging and seemed to freeze at just about any opportunity. It was obvious that the Strata I received was faulty, not only containing a stray piece of something, which rattled about under the anti-glare-coated mineral glass, but also suffering from some kind of internal issues. However, MetaWatch responded promptly to my emails, and arranged for the watch to be replaced almost immediately, ensuring that customs charges were prepaid, and even refunding the cost of sending the watch back to them in Texas. Luckily these teething problems only slightly marred my nascent smartwatch experience: the Strata still vibrated when I had a text, and buzzed to tell me about an incoming 'phone call - all very useful when one's 'phone is tucked away in a pocket. In fact, it worked well as a tool to provide alerts: the display is clear; messages are relatively easy to read and re-read (the last alert is stored in the Strata and can be read by pushing the top right button); and another alert informs you of a break in the Bluetooth link. This doubles as a neat reminder, should you walk away from your 'phone.

Additional functionality means that the Strata operates as a Bluetooth remote for the default Apple music player, a feature I'd probably use more if my phone weren't stuffed full of photos instead of music. There's also a rather odd Chinese Lunar Calendar, which I would rarely, if ever, use. To be honest, I'm still not entirely sure that a "killer app" has been developed - although there are some very interesting thoughts from developers. Future MWM releases are expected to include support for email, Facebook and Twitter notifications, all of which appear key to future Hands Freedom™.

From reading about MW, and observing the Tweets from CEO Bill Geiser, it's clear that the concept behind the watches - Hands Freedom™ - is a driving force. Hands Freedom™ is how Bill describes the reduction in "friction" that, for example, an iPhone can cause: a simple glance at one's wrist is perceived to be less intrusive that reaching for one's 'phone to check a message. I understand the aim, and the philosophy, but I sometimes struggle with the *politeness* of the smart watch. Just because you *can* check your messages (or even Facebook updates) surreptitiously during a meeting, does this mean that you should? I must admit that I'm far more interested in potential developments in communications from the watch to MWM (e.g. pre-programmed messages in response to 'phone calls similar to those available from the Lock Screen). 

So. Am I going to continue on the road towards Hand Freedom™? Will you see me rebranding as a #smartwatchnerd? Possibly. Mechanical and "smart" watches are (in my mind) a world apart: the raison d'être of the former is to tell the time, while the latter aims to tell you almost everything else. Time is a secondary feature. Interestingly, the Tamagotchi Gesture so famously described by William Gibson continues with the MetaWatch; it requires a charge approximately every three to four days. When I wear the MetaWatch, my interactions with my 'phone change considerably: I'm far more inclined, for example, to use iCal to record upcoming events than when wearing a "normal" watch. I also find myself setting the Strata to display, for example, the weather (both current and a forecast for tomorrow). Why? I'm not sure. I think I'd better wear it a bit more and find out...

the #watchnerd

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